Oh we do like to be…
The British seaside is moving with the times and yet somehow never changes. For its major summer exhibition opening tomorrow (March 23), Royal Museums Greenwich at the National Maritime Museum uses the work of four of our finest documentary photographers to tell the story. Simon Tait reports
“A slap of sea and a tickle of sand. A fanfare of sunshades opening. A wince and whinny of bathers dancing into deceptive waters. A tuck of dress. A rolling of trousers. A compromise of paddlers. A sunburn of girls and a lark of boys.”
Main image: West Bay, Dorset, 1996, copyright Martin Parr - Magnum Photos
These lines from a 1947 Dylan Thomas essay inspired the photographer Tony Ray-Jones to go on a 1960s odyssey of the British seaside which he feared was in danger of disappearing under an avalanche of American kitsch.
Ray-Jones is one of four documentary photographers the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich is featuring as it strives to encapsulate the extraordinary national phenomenon that is The Seaside. He died aged 31 in 1972 and never saw how the British beach has not only survived as a national characteristic, it is moving on.
Probably Jaywick Sands, 1967, copyright Tony Ray-Jones - National Science and Media Museum
Margate, Kent, c.1967, copyright Tony Ray-Jones - National Science and Media Museum
The other three, all still taking sought-after pictures of British life, are Martin Parr, David Hurn and Simon Roberts.
Some of the earliest images in the show, from the 60s, could have been taken last summer, and our attitudes and behaviour haven’t changed. With grim determination we still ignore bad weather. We still eat our lunches on the beach, seagulls permitting. We still bruise our bare feet on pebbles as we hop gingerly to soak them in icy water. We still pretend to be comfortable in unforgiving deckchairs.
There are over 100 images in The Great British Seaside documenting this quintessentially British experience, beaches from Brighton to Blackpool, and the traditions, customs and eccentricities associated with them.
David Hurn, now in his 80s, has made a speciality of “photographing the mundane” and the unique social occasion a trip to the seaside has been. Miners in his native Wales tended to go on holiday together, and 1971 shot at Aberavon Beach, Port Talbot, shows a corral of a dozen or more people within a circle of windbreaks, all of them miners’ families from the same neighbourhood. “The seaside” he says “is a place for uninhibited fun. It is cheap and very democratic, full of laughter, tenderness, ridiculousness but basically a way of having a good time”.
Whistling Sands, Potheor, Aberaderon, 2004. Copyright David Huon - Magnum Photos
Herne Bay, Kent, 1983. Copyright David Huon - Magnum Photos
Martin Parr, perhaps our finest social observer taking pictures now, dubs himself the aficionado of the British seaside, having photographed our beaches repeatedly since the 1970s. Like Ray-Jones, he finds the absurd and the ironic in beach society, and he was commissioned by the museum last summer to make a series of 20 images of beaches around the Essex coast. For the exhibition he brings the beach yup to date, recording how some of our newest communities have made the seaside their own alongside more conventional holiday-makers. “The seaside” he says “has to be one of the most fascinating places fir people-watching. It is a place where we relax and lose our inhibitions, and that’s when true personalities come on display”.
Blackpool Promenade, :Lancashire, 2008. Copyright Simon Roberts, courtesy Flowers Gallery
Brighton West Pier, East Sussex, 2011. Copyright Simon Roberts, courtesy Flowers Gallery
The youngest of the quartet is Simon Roberts, based in Brighton so literally at home at the seaside. Afraid the seaside pier was an endangered species he made a project of photographing all 58 survivors, but now believes that they are reviving in a new popularity. He sees the British beach as a theatre in which we enact themes of both national and local heritage, and to record it he uses a large-format field camera to capture the finest detail, often standing for hours on the roof of a van. “I see the British seaside as a series of landscapes through which we can trace part of our national history” he says.
The Great British Seaside: Photography from the 1960s to the present is at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, Sammy Ofer building from tomorrow, March 23, to September 30. https://www.rmg.co.uk/see-do/great-british-seaside